Street Warrior—Part 2

by Ralph Friedman and Patrick Picciarelli

July 31, 2017

A deputy inspector pulled me aside.

“Ralph, the mayor wants to talk to you.”

I was taken aback. Was I going to City Hall? That was a world away in a far-off land called Manhattan. The Bronx was one of the five boroughs, but it might as well have been in an alternate universe, such was the disparity in socioeconomic conditions. Why did the mayor want to talk to me at all? The DI saw the confused look on my face.

“He’s coming to you, Ralph; you’re not going to him. Get in the car.” He directed me to his department auto, and we sped to Jacobi Hospital.

I made a conscious effort to decompress during the ride, but it didn’t work. I was hypervigilant, and my blood pressure must’ve been through the roof. Aside from the obvious reason to go to the hospital, perhaps having a few hundred doctors available wasn’t a bad idea.

The idea of talking to the mayor didn’t thrill me. I’m a private person and most comfortable around the people I know and respect. The short list was family and cops, the terms being interchangeable. In the ensuing years, I became accustomed to press conferences, award ceremonies, and media types, but I was never at ease. I wanted to do my job and fade away, and then repeat the process the next day. This, unfortunately, was not the reality.

The streets surrounding the hospital were strewn with numerous NYPD vehicles, all illegally parked. I heard the wash of a helicopter’s blades and turned to see a chopper hovering above Pelham Parkway, a six-lane roadway that was apparently being turned into a helipad.

The driver of the car I was in parked on the sidewalk, and I was led past at least a hundred uniforms of varying ranks and jobs: transit cops, housing cops, off-duty cops, cops in uniforms I didn’t recognize—all there to give blood and anything else that was required. When a cop is shot, you circle the wagons, and unconditional support comes from everywhere. The word gets out quickly.

Jacobi Hospital had a media room where doctors and other interested parties give updates on high-profile cases. I was sequestered there, a small area with a miniscule stage, a podium, and a few dozen folding chairs in neat lines.

“The mayor’s coming in shortly, Ralph,” the DI told me.

How do you respond to that? “Wonderful,” I said. “How’s Kal doing? I want to see him.”

“Soon. Do your thing with Lindsay first.”

Mayor John Lindsay came breezing in with an entourage. I recognized one of his minions as the deputy commissioner of public information (DCPI), the liaison between the press and the NYPD.

The mayor approached me with an extended hand. “How’re you doing, Ralph? You okay? Anything I can do for you?” He was grim and had a look of concern on his face that seemed genuine; with politicians, you never know what’s real from what’s bullshit.

John Lindsay was an imposing figure. He was tall and slim, impeccably dressed, and had an aura that commanded attention. One of the reasons he’d won the mayoralty was a promise to appoint 3,500 new cops to the force, no mean feat for the times. It was the height of the Vietnam War, and police work was as establishment as you could get. It was not a job young men were lining up to apply for. It was the age of the hippie movement and all the anti-government rhetoric that went with it. But he’d pulled it off: the city got its cops, and he got Gracie Mansion.

“I’m okay, sir . . . my partner. I don’t know how he’s doing. I’d like . . .”
The mayor spoke to an aide over his shoulder. “Get an update on the injured officer. Now, please.” People began to move.

We talked for maybe five minutes, and I got the distinct impression I was being sized up. The DCPI was paying rapt attention to everything I said.

“You performed heroically, Ralph . . . you and Officer Unger. You’ll be recognized for it.” He looked to the DCPI who nodded. “I’ll be leaving now, just wanted to come and personally thank you for a job well done. You’ll be apprised of Officer Unger’s condition shortly. Good luck.” We shook hands and he was gone along with his crew.
A captain quickly took his place. “Ralph, listen up. There’s going to be a press conference in about five minutes. You’re the lead. The reporters will want to talk to you . . . ask you questions. You up for it?”

Now I realized the main reason for the Q and A I’d just had with the mayor. While he was sincere in his concern about my welfare, his DCPI was weighing if I was wrapped tight enough to answer questions from the press without falling apart or saying something that would embarrass the job or, worse, the mayor.

I was in a place of high clarity and said so, still on an extreme adrenaline rush with no signs it was going to abate anytime soon. The captain took my word for it and called for a cop to admit the press, or as he so eloquently put it, “Let the bloodsuckers in.”

With the rush of reporters came cameramen and lights, lots of lights. As the captain nodded toward the podium, a sergeant from the Four-One materialized by my side. He said to the captain, “A minute, Cap? Got an update on Kal.” He didn’t wait for permission.

In a conspiratorially soft voice he leaned closer to me. “Kal’s in bad shape. They’re pumping blood into him by the gallon. He took a bullet to the heart . . . a sac or something.” The sergeant looked confused. “The doc talked medical shit; all I heard was a round to the heart. He’s holding his own. They’re doing everything that can be done.”

I felt myself beginning to break down, but I shook the feeling off. “Okay, Sarge. Keep me in the loop. Please?”

He said, “You bet,” and was gone.

I fielded questions for about five minutes. This wasn’t my first experience with reporters, but this was my first time as the center of attention with no way to escape. I felt like a nun in a whorehouse: a sea of faces in front of me, all shouting questions, and me staring just above their heads. Trying to make eye contact with each of them would’ve put me over the edge.

Most questions were relevant to the incident, but no one tried to bait me with questions about the use of deadly force. I thought it wise to give as many yes and no answers as possible, thinking whatever I say can come back to bite me in the ass. A boss on the job once said to me, “You can never get in any trouble keeping your mouth shut.” Words to live by.

I knew I’d been justified in my actions, but I didn’t entirely trust the media not to edit my responses for ratings. While I was expected to answer questions, I wasn’t obligated to elaborate, and I didn’t.

One reporter got close to forbidden territory when she asked, “Have you ever shot anyone before, Officer Friedman?”

I had, but I wasn’t about to go there. Expecting the question, I had my answer ready: “I hurt someone’s feelings once.” That shut her up, and a boss moved in to end the interview before the reporter asked for clarification of my wiseass answer. I’d be all over the local evening news.

I stayed at the hospital for another few hours. Kal wound up getting seventy-two pints of blood, most coming from cop volunteers after the hospital’s supply of Kal’s blood type ran out. A doctor told me that Kal made medical history by taking that much blood in three hours. He had five other gunshot wounds that, while not as severe, were also life-threatening. He’d be in the hospital for two months.

The guy I’d killed was one Charles Williams. He had a rap sheet of assorted priors—as did many of the inhabitants of the Four-One. Williams lived with his wife and kids directly across Fox Street from where the shooting took place. The woman whom he’d assaulted was his girlfriend. Williams would divide his time between his wife and his girlfriend, unbeknownst to his family. Apparently, the girlfriend said or did something to piss him off because he was in the process of beating her to death when Kal and I intervened. Aggravated because we’d interrupted him, he took out his rage on me and Kal—one of many mistakes he’d made that day.

Kal was recovering from surgery and his future was touch and go. One doctor told me that he believed it was a miracle Kal had survived the initial trauma of the shooting, let alone making it through the surgical procedure. As the day meandered into night, cops from the Four-One, plus a smattering of others from commands throughout the city who knew Kal, hunkered down in the hospital to await any change in his condition. No one was going home; we’d sleep where we sat, whether it be in chairs or stretched out on the cold, hard floor. Cops can sleep anywhere; we were seasoned from the two-day marathons that sometimes made up the arrest and arraignment process.

The frenetic pace of the day caught up with everyone; it was as if the 41st Precinct cops were balloons and someone came along and stuck us with pins. The energy and anger we harbored since the shooting had dissipated into exhaustion and quiet reflection. While cops littered the hallways, most were silent, some nodding out as the evening wore on. The solitude gave me time to think.

There’s not a cop or member of the military alive who hasn’t thought about what it would be like to take a human life. It’s something that runs through a cop’s mind often. I never dwelled on it; I just felt that one day it might happen. Nothing prepares you for it. You come up with possible scenarios as to how, who, why, but conjecture doesn’t come anywhere near reality.

We were in the midst of the Vietnam War, and I’d spoken to a number of enlisted friends who’d sweated the day they would experience combat. Would they freeze? Would they prove themselves? Would they be satisfied with the way they handled whatever was thrown at them? Cops are no different; only the battlefields change. I’ve known cops and soldiers who were forever changed the day they killed. Some experience psychological problems; others drink. Flashbacks are common. Marriages are destroyed. The forward momentum of life becomes intolerable. The malady of post-traumatic stress disorder wasn’t even recognized in 1972.

I viewed my actions as totally justified, and as such my conscience was clear. I didn’t intend on killing Charles Williams. Police officers are trained to stop a threat, to recognize the imminent danger and erase it by no longer having it exist. You keep firing until the threat is stopped. Williams had been shot numerous times before my shot to his heart ended his life. Had he fallen to the floor or just dropped his weapon and given up, he’d have survived.

I don’t believe humans are designed to kill each other. We’re a higher form of animal and should only kill for food. Society dictates we live in harmony, but this isn’t always possible. In places like Fort Apache, day-to-day survival depends on a warrior mind-set, not only for the cops but also for the civilians. I hoped that my first experience taking a human life would be my last. Realistically, I knew this to be wishful thinking and I’d be proved right . . . three more times.

Charles Williams was dead, but he would be a part of my life for a while. My killing of Williams was declared a homicide by the Bronx district attorney. This is procedure whenever a cop kills someone. The question, of course, is whether the homicide was justified. There would be a grand jury hearing, during which I would have to validate my use of deadly force.

Three weeks later, it was deemed just that: justifiable homicide as per New York State law. I had done what I had to do to save my life and the life of my partner.

Read the first part of Street Warrior here.

Copyright © 2017 by Ralph Friedman and Patrick Picciarelli

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PATRICK PICCIARELLI, a Vietnam vet, spent twenty years in the NYPD and is a licensed private investigator and adjunct writing professor at Seton Hill University. The author of Jimmy the Wags, My Life in the NYPD, he regularly contributes to Hardboiled magazine, among others. He lives in Monessen, PA.

RALPH FRIEDMAN served the NYPD from 1970 to 1984, at which time he retired due to being injured in the line of duty. In his short career he amassed more awards and honors than any other detective in the NYPD’s history. Street Warrior: The True Story of the NYPD’s Most Decorated Detective and the Era That Created Him chronicles his career.